The opening scenes of Shang-Chi and the legend of the ten rings paint a rich portrait not of the titular hero of the film but of his villain. Played by Hong Kong superstar Tony Leung, Wenwu (aka the Mandarin) is the owner of the Ten Magic Rings. As such, he is an immortal man charged, as the saying goes, with the great responsibility that comes with great power. He brutally exercises his abilities for thousands of years, leading armies, creating terrorist organizations and becoming less and less human as he carves the world according to his vision.
And then he meets a woman named Jiang Li (played by Fala Chen) from a mythical land called Ta Lo. Their first fight, a wuxia-tinged sequence set in a pale green bamboo forest, transforms from a fierce battle into a dance of stolen looks and sultry touches. They fall in love. They start a family. It encloses the rings.
Superhero movies don’t normally start with a love story, let alone a lush, fairytale dive into the life of its antagonist. Corn Shang-Chi is no ordinary superhero movie. Directed by Destin Daniel Cretton (Short term 12), the latest and the first, after 24 films, from Marvel Studios to feature a predominantly Asian cast, is not so much an origin story as it is a mythological saga of a family torn apart by power and loss. immense. The film follows Wenwu and Jiang Li’s son Shang-Chi (Simu Liu), who runs away as a teenager after his mother’s death. He tries to lead a normal life in San Francisco, working as a valet by day and singing karaoke at night, when his father catches up with him with a plan to get him home.
To tell the long and tumultuous history of the family, the film crosses time and travels the worlds, offering a delicious mix of genres and influences. sometimes Shang-Chi is a straightforward martial arts drama, full of fist fights and meticulous choreography. Other times, it’s an epic high fantasy, full of breathtaking scenery and intricate lore. At one point, a dragon — a dragon!-reveal.
Like the Ten Rings, these disparate elements constantly threaten to slip out of their orbit; certain moments of the film seem overwhelmed by the matter of the construction of the world. Fortunately, Shang-Chi finds his center of gravity indispensable in Leung as Wenwu. The actor, one of Asia’s biggest movie stars, may be an unknown face to the American general public, but in his first Hollywood role, something he is. would have wanted since 2005 – he practically ran away with the film. Wenwu is a supervillain who has lived a life of crime and conquest, and in every scene Leung imbues him with a cold confidence. He’s both charismatic and menacing, as if he is daring his stage partner to challenge him. Each line sounds like it’s accompanied by a smirk. “I told my men that they couldn’t kill you if they tried,” he told Shang-Chi after a fight. “I’m glad I was right. “
But Leung also intentionally softens the character. Given his appearance, he has rarely been presented as an antagonist in his celebrated career in Asia; As the star of Wong Kar-wai’s masterpieces of unrequited love, the actor is unmatched when it comes to exuding pathos and desire. So when he plays a bad guy like he did in Ang Lee’s Lust, prudence– he uses his magnetism to expose his character’s vulnerabilities, exploring what would be, in the hands of another performer, a simple representation of a monster. In Shang-Chi, Leung slowly and precisely transforms Wenwu, revealing that he is not just a simple crime lord, but a tragic romantic trail who still mourns Jiang Li, clinging to conspiratorial thought for guidance. He is an avatar of loneliness, a living fossil of a man who was excavated for love to return to a life of unknowable power and no one to share that experience with.
His performance anchors the film and expands the potential of the comic book villain. Of the dozens of Marvel antagonists who have appeared on the big screen, few – Loki, Thanos, Killmonger – have managed to make a likable and memorable impression in the same way. Even fewer characters in the Marvel Cinematic Universe battle the tragedy of doomed love; these films were notoriously prudish, often downplaying romantic stories. So, rooting Wenwu’s motives in grief rather than domination, destruction, or revenge seems odd for a Marvel movie: Shang-ChiThe central conflict of ‘goes beyond the classic good versus evil, and far beyond the easy of a son who quarrels with his father.
In fact, Shang-Chi and Wenwu don’t necessarily disagree; Cretton repeatedly illustrates how the couple, after Jiang Li’s death, faced prejudicially. The two abandoned Shang-Chi’s sister Xialing (Meng’er Zhang). Both resumed their old ways – Wenwu put the rings back on, while Shang-Chi fled the fighting, preferring to hide. Their disconnection was, ultimately, born of poor communication and misunderstanding, the inability to speak out despite their shared hurt. “Stop hiding,” a character advises Shang-Chi at the end of the film. “It only prolongs the pain.”
It might all seem like grim territory for a comic book movie to cover, but there are parts of the movie that can resonate especially with Asian American audiences. Shang-Chi is careful never to identify where Wenwu’s head office is in Asia, but it does underscore how an emotional chasm can develop between the younger generation of emigrants and the one that remains: as Wenwu has spent the years since his wife’s death to live in the house they shared, Shang-Chi settled halfway around the world. This distance has created a chasm of bitterness which is only exacerbated by cultural differences. Shang-Chi has anglicized his name to Shaun, for example, but Wenwu is opposed to such a name change. Shang-Chi remembers her mother wearing a pendant she gave him. Wenwu conscientiously awaits the Qingming Festival, a festival in Asia in which families sweep graves and pay homage to the deceased, to visit Ta Lo. As Shang-Chi fights his armies, Wenwu stops to light incense at Jiang Li Shrine.
The grieving movie’s meditation follows the apparent thematic goals of the MCU in Phase Four, its collection of post-Infinity Saga projects centered on Thanos. Shang-Chi, like the Disney + series WandaVision and The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, takes place after the events of Avengers: Endgame and therefore is faced with how people recalibrate their lives after trauma. The MCU explores a world in which people have become hyper-aware of their vulnerability to inexplicable events like the Blip that halves the population.
Yet Cretton never leaves Shang-Chi sink into the absence of humor. Liu’s charming Shang-Chi is surrounded by a set of strong supporting characters, including his cheerful best friend, Katy (Awkwafina); her aunt and mentor, Jiang Nan (Michelle Yeoh); and a few surprise guests that are sure to thrill longtime Marvel fans. The film also revels in staging its martial arts sequences in inventive settings – a moving bus tumbling down the hills of San Francisco, scaffolding next to a skyscraper – and unveiling a pivot corner, previously hidden, from the MCU.
Corn Shang-Chi ultimately belongs to Leung. He’s not just the star of the film’s opening: in his hands, Wenwu’s devastation catalyzes the action and permeates every frame, turning the film into tragedy. He becomes the character around which all the others revolve, whether or not he is in the scene. This is how grief works, after all; it shines. And Leung’s performance, like so many others in his career, lasts long after the credits roll.